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‘The Inland Sea’

The Seto Inland Sea

By David Yamaguchi, The North American Post

Note: This essay was submitted in January, in advance of the April NAP Japan tour, which was postponed, first to this fall; then indefinitely. Yet, we might as well still make the journey, traveling by armchair instead. This way, when the time comes to reschedule, travelers can be more knowledgeable.

IT HAS BEEN brought to my attention that the NAP spring tour will be to Shikoku and the Seto Inland Sea. Much of this new trip traverses landscapes that are off the beaten track. Thus, I thought it might be fun for the Shikoku pilgrims—and for vicarious pilgrims—to review a seminal travel book that covers part of their itinerary. In this way, all might be better prepared for the path ahead, and to read reports of it in these pages across the next several years.

The book I write of is Donald Richie’s “The Inland Sea” (1971, 2015).

“Earns its place on the very short shelf of books on Japan that are of permanent value,” the Times Literary Supplement, London, says of it in a widely quoted review.

Richie introduces the sea that the Seattle travelers will traverse in a big clockwise loop as follows:    

“It has been called the Aegean of the East. There are, however, differences. The Greek islands are few, and they stand from the sea as though with an effort, as though to indicate the water’s great depth. The islands of the shallow Inland Sea are different. They are small and they are many—hundreds of them, so many that a full count has never been made, or certainly not one that everyone can agree upon. They rise gracefully from this protected, stormless sea, as if they had just emerged, their beaches, piers, harbors all intact…. many are covered with forest, almost all have trees or bushes. A castaway, given a choice between a Greek and a Japanese island, would swim toward the latter. It looks like a place where it would be nice to live.

“Grandeur is missing, the precipitous hard-rock climbs of Santorin. But in place of vertical magnificence, there is the horizontal majesty of the panorama. Wherever one turns there is a wide and restful view, one island behind the other, each soft shape melting into the next until the last dim outline is lost in the distance.”   

Of the sea’s inhabitants, he writes:

“The people of the Inland Sea have been called backward. And so they are. Living in island towns, cut off from each other and from the mainland, they are like mountain villagers separated from the next village by whole ranges…. If their lives have little width, however, they do attain depth. A good catch of fish, the spring festival, a fine tangerine harvest—such events evoke a feeling and a response with which the mainland city dweller in Japan is now largely unfamiliar.

“So the people are indeed backward, if this means a people living eternally in the present, a people for whom becoming means little and being everything….

“The islands of the Inland Sea are among the last places on earth where men rise with the sun and where streets are dark and silent by nine at night. Here is the last of old Japan…”

The Seto Inland Sea

Examining Richie’s meandering route map, we find that four stops along his way match those of the NAP tour: Takamatsu, Naoshima, and Matsuyama on Shikoku; and Onomichi on the Honshu northern shore, east of Hiroshima. Of these, his passages on two merit quoting here:

1. Takamatsu

“One of the charms… is that though it is a small city rather than a town, you can walk practically anywhere you want to go in it….

“Formerly the site of the rural retreat of the Matsudaira family, several of whom were daimyo [military rulers] of this region during Tokugawa [“samurai”] times, the Ritsurin Park, an expanse of well over 100 acres, is one of Japan’s finest landscape gardens. That is, the finest of its genre: big, grand, official, imposing—the answer to Versailles.”

Richie continues, tongue in cheek:

“This is as far as I read in the guidebook….”

Whatever reference Richie had with him then, it is worth noting that Lonely Planet “Japan” (Aug. 2019) says much the same thing. Described as “the #1 bestselling guidebook to Japan on its cover, it lists Ritsurin Koen as the #1 local destination. It also points out that the park encloses destination #2 as well: the Sanuki Folkcraft Museum.

2. Naoshima

“Naoshima is a small, beautiful, somehow sad little island. A tiny town in squares and patches. On one side, beginning several feet back from the sea, a ruined shrine, a general store, a shaved-ice shop. The sadness comes from perhaps the loneliness—in early afternoons there never seems to be anyone on these islands.

“One old man, however, is sitting in front of a weathered store front. He is sorting dried squid into various sizes…”

Today, we can contrast Richie’s remarks on Naoshima with the chapter on it in the Lonely Planet’s “Best of Japan,” second ed. (Aug. 2019), a slender companion volume to their main guidebook:

“Naoshima is one of Japan’s great success stories: a rural island on the verge of becoming a ghost town, now a world-class centre for contemporary art. Many of Japan’s most lauded architects have contributed structures, including museums… all designed to enhance the island’s natural beauty and complement its existing settlements. It has also inspired some to pursue a slower life outside the big cities, relocating to Naoshima to open cafes and inns…”

The guidebook ranks Naoshima #9 among Japan’s 12 best destinations, which include Tokyo (#1), Kyoto (#2), Hiroshima (#7), and Hokkaido (#10).

PS. Since the publication of Richie’s book, the main difference is that bridges have been built to Shikoku, to link this formerly isolated island to the commerce of the mainland. Yet today, the bridges are viewed as proverbial “Bridges to Nowhere.” For while they have indeed brought more people than before, the few who have come have been insufficient to cover the interest on the construction loans. Thus, Shikoku and the Inland Sea islands leading to it remain places for travelers to see something of Old Japan.